On the morning of July 15, 1997, fashion designer Gianni Versace took his usual stroll, bought a newspaper, and returned to his Miami Beach mansion. He never made it past the steps, because a young man named Andrew Cunanan shot him twice in the head. The shocking murder, why it happened, and an in-depth examination of the lives of both the victim and the killer will play out over ten episodes in the miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, the second installment of the FX franchise following the Emmy-winning The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Based on the book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History by Maureen Orth, it stars Edgar Ramirez (Joy, The Girl on the Train) as Versace, Darren Criss (Glee) as Cunanan, Penelope Cruz as Versace’s sister Donatella, and Ricky Martin as Antonio D’Amico, Versace’s longtime lover. The story begins with the murder, which was the last of at least five Cunanan committed on a cross-country killing spree.
“We tell the story in reverse,” says executive producer and director Ryan Murphy. “We get into how he had that motive, and why he wanted to do what he wanted to do and why it was allowed to happen,” given the social climate of the 1990s.
“Andrew Cunanan was able to make his way across the country and pick off these victims, many of whom were gay, was because of homophobia at the time,” Murphy points out. “’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was going on. Various police organizations refused to put up ‘wanted’ posters, even though they knew that Andrew Cunanan had probably committed many of these murders and was probably headed that way, all of which we deal with in the show.”
“We examine [all] the victims,” adds executive producer Brad Simpson. “We celebrate the lives of these people that Andrew Cunanan snuffed out.”
The series also addresses the subject of Versace’s HIV-positive status, which he kept secret. “Versace had announced he was gay in an interview. His company was about to go public. He was terrified of anything coming out negative about his personal life. We delve into that in the show,” says Murphy. “I don’t think there should be any stigma or shame attached to HIV at all, even then. But there really was, and we address that headon.”
In addition to what he calls a “startling” physical resemblance to Versace, Murphy believes that Edgar Ramirez embodied the soulfulness and mystery necessary to play the designer. Like the other actors, he was Murphy’s first choice for the role.
“I’m a huge fan of stories that capture the zeitgeist and the spirit of the time that speak about greater subjects going on in society,” says Ramirez. “This story captures not only a very dramatic, amazing story that needs to be told, but how it captures the spirit of the time. It’s like a Greek tragedy. These characters are fated. And what is so amazing, and also moving and heartbreaking, is that it happened for real.”
Versace’s relationship with Antonio D’Amico is an important focus of the story, and Ricky Martin, who is gay, reveals that it affected him very personally. “Gianni was surrounded by ‘yes’ people. Antonio was bluntly honest. Antonio would push him to live life to the fullest. He was always right there. Nothing would separate them. And Gianni would not allow anyone to talk bad about Antonio.” Martin spoke to D’Amico and assured him, “I will make sure that people fall in love with your relationship with Gianni. I want them to see the connection you had.”
Playing serial killer Andrew Cunanan was a challenge for Darren Criss on several levels. “How could you possibly find something good about this person?” he’s often asked. “The bleeding idealist in me that wants to find the good in everybody has to really find that and exploit that as much as humanly possible, because we will see the worst of him. I found myself trying to make peace with it a little bit, in [playing] this person that represents something so horrible.”
He calls Cunanan “probably one of the most exhilarating characters that I’ve spent time with because he is so all over the place. He was an enjoyable, delightful, smart, brilliant kid brimming with potential. We see him at his best; we see him at his worst; we see him at his most charming; we see him at his most hurt. We really do get to know him as a person. It isn’t 10 episodes of watching Cunanan lurk around, doing horrible things constantly. I think if that were the case, I probably would have said no to the project,” he says, noting that he was able to gain insights from conversations with people who knew Cunanan. “It’s been a wonderful challenge to really find as much humanity in him as possible because we’ve got a long way to go with this guy, and we can’t have you just hate him the entire time.”
Screenwriter Tom Rob Smith’s script draws parallels between the lives of Versace and Cunanan. “Cunanan was from relative poverty, but Versace was, too. They had lots of similarities. One went on to create a business that was worth 800 million. And one became the opposite, this destructive force. And how these two lives collided is essentially the story we’re telling,” Smith says. Adds Criss, “In many ways, obviously, they’re very, very different men. But I think we try to find the common denominators between them.”
The miniseries was shot in Los Angeles and on location in Miami, where the production was permitted to film some scenes Versace’s villa Casa Casuarina—now a hotel–where the actors rehearsed before filming began. “Donatella sold the home, took the furniture and the art, but left everything else there, the structure of it,” says Ryan Murphy. “We had a full month there, and we really bonded a lot over the tone of the piece. And that was its own emotional rehearsal.“ Adds Darren Criss, “I walked in the building and could feel Gianni’s presence.”
Not surprisingly, Criss says that filming the murder scene “was an overwhelmingly emotional day” for everyone involved. “We shot exactly on the exact step where Gianni died,” notes Murphy. “The crew was crying.”
The interior of the mansion was reproduced on an L.A. soundstage, replicated down to the smallest detail, including an ashtray made in 1997 and Versace’s favorite orchid plant on a table. The department heads and producers “would have like 10 meetings before we even showed up at the location,” Murphy says. When you’re doing historical pieces, you have an obligation to really get it right.”
Extensive research on Cunanan was done as well, down to the laces in his shoes and the backpack he carried. But Murphy reminds that the show is a docudrama, not a documentary. “There are always certain things you take liberty with.” As Edgar Ramirez puts it, “There are moments where imagination helps to connect the dots that reality is not sufficient to connect. It’s a piece of a painting; it’s not a photograph.”
Comparing Gianni Versace to his previous O.J. Simpson miniseries, which was primarily shot in a courtroom, Murphy points out that the manhunt aspect of the story required many locations, and the glamorous aspects of Versace’s life included fashion shows, which meant elaborate staging and hundreds of extras. “It has a great breadth and a great scope,” he says.
Versace “lived outrageously and daringly. His life was opera, and he lived that. He was a disrupter. You can just imagine what Versace would have done if he was not killed,” Murphy muses. “The true loss for me is the loss of his genius and his potential to keep disrupting and to keep changing society.”
Ironically, Versace had just recovered from a very serious illness just before he was murdered. “I really admired the way that he pulled himself back from the brink of death and kept fighting,” says Murphy, who sees the miniseries as an opportunity to pay tribute to the designer and for young people “to discover him in a new way. We wanted to do honor to him. And I think we did get it right.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Storypremieres Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. on FX.